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The Beer Circle » Breweries, Happy Valley Brewing Co. » Happy Valley Brewing Company’s Bitter Cold Start

Happy Valley Brewing Company’s Bitter Cold Start

HVBC: Located just off of College Avenue in State College, PA

HVBC: Located just off of College Avenue in State College, PA

State College has a new face in town, officially named Happy Valley Brewing Company (HVBC). It opened in December of 2013, becoming only the second brewery in State College (next to Otto’s Pub). Central Pennsylvania is begging for some new, top notch craft breweries, so HVBC has a big opportunity to succeed. It’s execution, however, has been flawed.

The brewery didn’t open with the highest of expectations, as it launched without any house-brewed offerings. It’s curious that a brewery–whose calling card is making its own beer–would open before it had anything to sell. If a restaurant opened and only sold food from a competitor upstate, would you really care to go? They also never responded to my email asking if they would be open between Christmas and New Years (considering the local University would be on break), so I didn’t go in with high hopes of being impressed.

The head brewer is Josh Davies, formally of Arcadia Ales, and he brings a solid background of brewing to the region. He helped out with Arcadia’s smaller batches and limited releases, suggesting that HVBC could have a similar line once it has its feet underneath it.

Because Penn State University students were out of town on winter break, I expected it to be not very busy. Boy was I wrong. A 45 minute wait for a table forced my group and I to the downstairs bar, which was at standing room capacity as well. Shocked, but impressed, we stalked the bar and eventually snuggled in at one of the unique “love seat” bar stools that comfortably fits two, and closely fits three.

After glazing over the beer list, which still includes some local brews not made by HVBC, I found that the brewery now has five of their six year-round beers and one seasonal. It isn’t uncommon for breweries to have guest taps like this, but they still aren’t operating will all of their “year-round” offerings, despite being open since October. Luckily, they offer a flight which gets you six beers for $9.50. Since they only had six of their own beers, it made sense to just get them all. I wondered why they used their limited capacity to brew a seasonal beer before their year-round offerings were ready to go, but they didn’t really have a great answer. They definitely aren’t following any book with their approach to the first few months.

Beers In My Flight

Beers In My Flight

On to the beers. The flight started off with a beer that I call perfect for the local taste: Stratus Loftbier. Loftbier isn’t an actual style, but it’s described as a hoppy light lager akin to the hefeweizen. The beer was hoppy, but out of balance for me. With some slight tweaks, this could be a really great beer. I wrote that the Loftbier would be perfect for the area, as it’s not unlike Coors Light (which is all my uncles will drink), but with a boosted flavor from its hoppiness. Second was the Craftsman Brown Ale, which is a coffee forward beer, but needs a stronger body to hold it together. Curiously, the next beer was a hoppy pale ale appropriately called Tailgater. Penn State is known for its tailgating, so brewing a light, drinkable beer to hold this label should be a solid business decision for the owners. I was confused why the darker beer would be served in between two light and hoppy offerings, but they’re still learning. Tailgater is citrusy and piney, that will hold its own next to its top competitor: Otto’s Mount Nittany Pale Ale.

A piece of advice, don’t wear flannel to the brewery! The workers wear it as their uniform…so you may be confused for an employee. I guess that if it got me some free beer, I wouldn’t complain.

On to the darkest beer: Phyrst Phamily Oatmeal Stout. This beer is named for the State College bar, the Phyrst, which is where I spent my 21st birthday. I have a lot of fond memories of that bar, but this beer doesn’t really do it justice. Weak, without much going on. It’s not much more than a Guinness, which confuses me because an oatmeal stout should not remind me of Guiness, which is an Irish Stout. The final year-round beer from Happy Valley is the Barnstormer IPA. This was my favorite of the year-round beers as it focused on the bitter side of hops that I so enjoy. Again, it was served in a strange order as it broke up the light beers with the dark ones. I only take issue with the order of the beer because it seemed to be a pre-determined ordering, based on the printed sheet served with each flight. If a brewery gives me beers in a specific order, I expect them to have though through this order and how each beer would compliment each other. HVBC clearly did not take this approach and seemed to offer them only at random.

It was at this point that I got my food. I went with the Korean BBQ ribs with a side of pretzels and mustard. The ribs were outstanding, the perfect combination of “wet” and slightly spicy. The pretzels, however, were even better. Easily the best thing anybody in our group had (including the beer). One order comes with two large, softer than average pretzels and some delicious mustard. The Barnstormer IPA paired just perfectly with the spiciness of the ribs, and I would recommend that meal to anyone stopping by.

Last up is the Sain’t Misbehavin’ winter warmer. This seasonal offering focuses on the added spice, but finishes with a big hit of molasses, it was an average end to an overall average tasting. In my opinion, Otto’s only makes one beer that is really great (Jolly Roger Imperial Stout), but I would still prefer almost everything Otto’s makes to what I had at HVBC. There is still a large gap between the beer made in State College and what is brewed elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Where The Magic Happens

Where The Magic Happens

They’re young and very small, and HVBC definitely still have some work to do. Since I visited, a number of issues have further eroded my confidence in this young upstart. They closed earlier this week, at the peak of the polar vortex, without notifying potential customers via social media, harkening back to their poor online management that I experienced when my email went unanswered. It would put a sour taste in my mouth (and not in the good way) had I ventured to the brewery, after checking their various sites, only to be locked out after braving the sub-zero temperatures for a beer.

The reasoning for their closure certainly is worse. The pipes froze. Confirmed by a phone call to the brewery.

The most important ingredient to a brewer is water. So much so that breweries like Ommegang are willing to go to court to protect it. Most breweries pay very close attention to their water, and nobody was taken off guard by the impending sub-zero temperatures that struck the midwest and northeast this week, making at least this customer wonder how they could allow such a thing to happen. The main interruption to a brewery that this might have is a delay of the brewing operations. Until the water is back and ready to go, you have nothing to heat up to create beer, nothing to chill down the beer that you’ve brewed, and nothing to clean up with after!

The other main issue that impacts the future of Happy Valley Brewing Company is that they delayed the release of their brown ale aged on tart cherries. On my visit, they advertised this beer as coming by the new year. Being a fan of both brown ales and tart cherries, I thought that this would be a real step in the right direction. Unfortunately, a Facebook post tells us that the release has been delayed. While delays of this sort are not uncommon in the beer world (sometimes in situations like this, the beer never sees the light of day), it certainly doesn’t help the already waning consumer confidence in the brewery’s ability to do the one thing that it claims to do best: make beer.

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Written by Russ Beck

Russ can trace his beginnings in craft beer to sitting in Zeno’s Pub in State College drinking various craft beer options from across Pennsylvania. Since then, he has never faltered in finding new brews, whether they’re rare, delicious, or hopefully both. Russ will be writing on a large variety of subjects, including but not limited to: reviews, homebrewing, and how to take labels off of beer bottles. He’ll drink just about anything, but prefers a nice Stout, IPA, or Weizenbock. Find Russ Beck on Google Plus

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2 Responses to "Happy Valley Brewing Company’s Bitter Cold Start"

  1. Frank The Tank says:

    I enjoyed this post. Thank you. My favorite part: “I have a lot of fond memories of that bar, but this beer doesn’t really do it justice. Weak, without much going on. It’s not much more than a Guinness, which confuses me because an oatmeal stout should not remind me of Guiness, which is an Irish Stout.”

  2. Jason says:

    The beer at HVBC is so much better than Ottos. Anyone who has a respectable palate can decipher and understand this. I hope that Russ Beck has visited since he wrote this piece because they have 7 or more rotating seasonals that Ottos only wishes it could keep up with or compare to. If you’re in the SC area, head on over to HVBC for better beer and atmosphere.

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